Jan 22, 2014

Ran-Tong Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai

Welcome to Thailand! What better way to explore the Chiang Mai area on the first day than by visiting an elephant sanctuary in the jungle? Let's go!
A baby elephant looking for bananas.

First we had to climb the hill.

The elephant trainer hitched a ride.

View from the top of the hill.

Riding an elephant!

When it finally came time to ride the elephant, I was pretty nervous. An elephant's back is not built the same as a horse's, so they can't support your weight without it hurting their spine (and it would be a very bony ride). Instead, you ride up on the elephant's neck, close to its head. But then when it moves its head, you feel like you're going to fall off. In all the other pictures of me during my first ride I looked panic-stricken.

Of course I didn't fall, and I slowly relaxed into the powerful grace of the elephant's movements. With the trainer telling it commands in Thai, we turned around, walked forward and backward, and practiced coming to a stop. Then she knelt down and I fed her a treat.

What a good girl! Here's a banana.

View from the tree house on top of the hill.

After everyone in the group had practiced, we each mounted our ride and formed a line going further into the jungle. With each step I felt the animal's huge weight being pressed into the earth, shifting side to side, walking up the worn path under the jungle's overhanging trees.

These trees ended up being a distraction, too. My new friend was really hungry, and kept stopping to wrap his trunk around a branch and pull it towards him to munch on. The trainer walking beside us urged him on, and I pet the rough skin of his back encouraging him to keep going, and he resumed his stroll again.

We went around in a long circle, climbing up the hills. When we walked downhill again, some spots were so steep I felt myself slipping forward on the elephant's neck. I was so worried I was going to fall. The trainers kept an eye on us, and we made it down the hill back to the tree house.

A homemade lunch of curry and vegetables spooned over rice, with pineapple chunks for dessert. Many of us saved the pineapple to feed to the elephants instead.

Taking a rest in the tree house while listening to our guide explain the mission of the sanctuary to save elephants who have been maltreated.

Our guide explained how Asian elephants evolved to be climbers with thick nails that can break up roots as they walk. They are also more friendly than African elephants, who are built for walking the plains and aggressively defending themselves. Another interesting note: both male and female African elephants have tusks, but for Asian elephants only the males have them.

Steps up to the tree house.

We mounted our elephants again and rode downhill to the waterfall to bathe them in the river.

Washing and brushing our elephant between moments of him plunging under the water.

Feeling his tusks.
There are a lot of elephant "parks" in Thailand where they have them do tricks and you can ride them saddled. I'm glad we went to a sanctuary instead, where they never beat the elephants, put them in unnatural positions, or use spikes to hold chains in their skin. "Sometimes it's Monday morning and elephant don't want to work," our guide said. "They are like human." So they don't push them.
Coming full circle: another baby at the sanctuary.

It was an incredible experience to ride an elephant through the Thai jungle... and it was only the beginning of the week-long adventure!


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